The first academic paper I ever published was about Brazil-Africa Relations, approximately from the 1960s to the 2000s. The main point of the article was to compare three moments of Brazilian Foreign Policy Towards Africa: the Independent Foreign Policy of the Early 1960s; the Foreign Policy of the latter Military Governments (late 1970s) and the Foreign Policy of the Lula administration (2003-2011). My main conclusion was that the foreign policy towards Africa of these three moments was very similar. Although some would exalt Lula’s foreign policy as something extraordinary, the truth, as I saw it, was that it was very well grounded in a tradition of Brazilian Foreign Policy.
Today I feel somewhat ashamed of that paper. I failed to highlight the irony: the leftist government of Lula had a foreign policy strikingly similar to that of the (supposedly) far-right military regime. The information, to be sure, is all there. One has simply to come to this obvious conclusion.
The foreign policy of Lula and Dilma was indeed very similar to that of Ernesto Geisel and João Batista Figueiredo, the last two generals to be presidents of Brazil, and not only regarding Africa. Dilma’s economic policy was extremely similar to that of Geisel, the same policy that, by the way, led Brazil to the hyperinflation of the 1980s and early 1990s.
It is definitely ironic. The Workers Party began as an opposition to the military government in Brazil. Dilma was a terrorist guerrilla warrior who fought against that regime (and never publicly apologized for that). However, once in power, they became very similar to their enemies. I’ll leave the readers to come to their own conclusions about this. But regarding Africa: I wasn’t able to continue my research. But I’m still very interested in that continent. Brazil is geographically and culturally very similar to many African nations. I believe there are great opportunities for mutual aggrandizement. But “mutual” is not what I saw in my research. I saw Brazil being hypocritical: The US is (in the sick mind of some leftist Brazilian politicians and diplomats) imperialist towards Brazil; therefore, Brazil will be imperialist towards Africa. I hope that a more market-friendly Brazil will be able to do something different.
Large states have been shown to be correlated with a large number of poor developmental outcomes, including poor institutions (Olsson and Hansson 2009), conflict (Buhaug and Rød 2006; Englebert et al. 2002; Raleigh and Hegre 2009), and ethnic diversity (Green 2010a). Similarly, states with artificial borders have been shown to be correlated with boundary disputes and low GDP per capita (Alesina et al. 2010; Englebert et al. 2002).
Sub-Saharan Africa has been affected by large states and artificial borders perhaps more than any other part of the world. Indeed, while Sub-Saharan Africa and Europe both contain between 48 and 50 sovereign states each, Sub-Saharan Africa is around 2.4 times larger than Europe. Moreover, with 44% of borders drawn as straight lines, “Africa is the region most notorious for arbitrary borders” (Alesina et al. 2010:7). Scholars have thus suggested that Africa’s poor economic development and numerous conflicts have been at least partially a result of its large states and artificial borders (Alesina et al. 2010; Englebert et al. 2002).
However, there is very little scholarship explaining African state size or shape, with previous literature only focusing on the persistence of state size and borders in the post-colonial period rather than on their origins (Englebert 2009; Herbst 2000). Thus my goal here is to probe the origins of state size and shape in Africa.
The notion of the person is constantly renegotiated and is at stake between groups situated within the same political entity as well as between neighboring political entities. With advent of [France’s colonial] district register and the resulting written registration of identity, the notion of a person acquired a greater fixity. It became much more difficult to change identity or even to modify the spelling of one’s first or last name. Since it could no longer affect the components of the person, the negotiation of identity shifted, as in the case of the West, onto other sectors of social and individual life. (135)
This is from the French anthropologist (and high school friend of our own Jacques Delacroix) Jean-Loup Amselle, in his book Mestizo Logics: Anthropology of Identity in Africa and Elsewhere. The book is hard to read. The English translation (the one I’m reading) was published by Stanford University Press in 1998, but the original French language version came out in 1990. Between the translation and the fact that the book was written for specialists in the field of political anthropology and the region of French Sudan, strenuous effort was required on my part to stay focused and motivated to finish the book. The preface alone is worth the price of admission, though, especially if you’ve been following my blogging with any great interest over the years.
My intent is not to write a review, but rather to build off Amselle’s work and present some of my efforts in blog form here at NOL. But first, a map of the region, Wasolon, that Amselle specializes in:
Wasolon is that big red marking that I’ve drawn on the map. You can see that it’s about as big as Sierra Leone. Just for clarity’s sake, here is a second map with a closer view of Wasolon:
Amselle’s argument for why his approach to identity is superior to others’ is convincing. He performed all of his fieldwork (15 years’ worth as of 1990) in Wasolon, or briefly in neighboring areas, reasoning that “research within numerous regions of a well-circumscribed area […] has allowed me to observe systems of transformation [in] societies that have been in contact for centuries. This has protected me from being forced into large analytical leaps and from engaging in [the current anthropological trends of] abstract comparativism and the identification of structures (xii-xiii).” This defense of his methodology, coupled with his insights on French colonial administration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, gives me reason to believe that Amselle’s work is an excellent blueprint for better understanding the complete and utter failure of post-colonial states and the violence these collective failures have produced.
I want to take a specific route using the introductory quote, even though I could take a number of different routes using that passage. I could, for example, focus on the invention of the individual and muse about its consequences in regards to the rise of the West. I could go on and on about how other societies had writing – but not the individual- and therefore did not have the institutions necessary for “capitalism” that the West did around the 16th century. Et cetera, et cetera. Instead, I’m going to take a geopolitical route (the West is still practicing colonialism) that has a decidedly philosophical direction to it (nationalism and ethno-nationalism are both bullhooey).
First, the geopolitical context. Wasolon was basically a war zone in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was an important producer of cotton, a minor producer of rubber and ivory, and a net exporter of slaves. Wasolon was unfortunate enough to be caught between Saharan empires backed by Arabic culture, money, and technology, and coastal empires recently enriched through cultural, economic, and technological exchange with rapidly-expanding European populations. Caught between these two geographic poles, polities in Wasolon oscillated between being decentralized chiefdoms, small independent states, empire builders themselves, and vassals of empires. In such an uncertain setting, the identity of people themselves necessarily oscillated as often as their political systems did.
When the French arrived militarily on the scene (there was already a long history of economic, political, and cultural exchange between the “French” and Wasolonians; I put French in quotation marks because, of course, many Europeans found it to be much easier to use “French” as an identity in French Sudan rather than their own), Wasolon was home to many decentralized chiefdoms, and they were all in the midst of a protracted and brutal war with the Samori Empire, a Saharan polity that rose quickly and ruthlessly to prominence in the late 19th century.
The Samori Empire – which the French military was in contact with due to its centralized political structure (it had a bureaucracy and an organized military, for example) – claimed Wasolon as a vassal state and the French, out of ignorance or expediency (to attribute it to malice gives French central planners too much credit), simply took Samori at its word (a policy that continues to play out to this day in international affairs, but more on this below).
The French military commanders and, later, colonial administrators eventually figured out that Wasolon was not a loyal vassal. From the French perspective, the resisting chiefdoms in Wasolon had formed an alliance against the Samori Empire, and this alliance was based on an ethnic solidarity shared by all Fulani. Amselle labors to make the point that this alliance was based on a “mythical charter” long prominent in Fula oral traditions (and has some basis in the historical accounts of Arab and European travelers). This “mythical charter” served as the basis for the French colonial understanding of the Fula and eventually for the notion of a Fulani ethnic identity. The problem here is that the “mythical charter” was just that: a myth.
As we saw in Chap. 5, colonial ethnology merely reproduces this local political theory by taking it literally, thereby assimilating these “mythical charters” to a real historical process. Such a reproduction is what makes this ethnology truly colonial. (179)
In the Chapter 5 that Amselle alludes to in his footnotes, Mestizo Logics explains how the Fula people of Wasolon adopted fluid political identities over the centuries, depending on who was in power and who was about to be in power. This fluidity played, and continues to play, a much more important role in how people identified themselves politically (“local political theory”) than either culture or language.
Amselle illustrates this point best by pointing out that a number of chiefdoms in Wasolon claimed to be Fula at the time of the French conquests in the late 19th century, but that the populations spoke a different language than the Fula and were culturally distinct from the Fula (these Wasolon chiefdoms claiming Fulaniship were Banmana and Maninka in language and culture rather than Fula). Amselle then points out that Fula chiefdoms existed outside of Wasolon that don’t claim to be Fula – even though they are culturally and linguistically Fula – and instead identified as something more politically expedient (he doesn’t elaborate on what those non-Fula Fulani identify as, only that they did, and still do).
The French state’s act of writing down and categorizing this “mythical charter” as a distinct feature of Wasolon’s Fulani thus created the Fula ethnic group and, through imperial governance, ensconced this new group into its empire’s hierarchy based on traits that ethnographers, colonial administrators, historians, and managers of state-run corporations had recorded (accounts written by merchants not connected to the state in some way could not be trusted, of course).
Basically, when the French showed up to build their empire in west Africa they bought the narrative espoused by a couple of the factions in the region and based their empire (which was only feasible with the advent of peace in Europe after the Napoleonic Wars) on that narrative. The results of this policy are eye-opening. Aside from the fact that the present-day states of Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, and Guinea are failures, the old rules of fluid identity used by Wasolonians for political and economic reasons were erased and new rules, based on bureaucratic logic (“ethnicity”), were wrested into place by the French imperial apparatus. These new ethnic identities soon took on characteristics, ascribed to them by others, that quickly became stereotypes. The ethnic groups with good stereotypes (like being hard-working) ended up – you guessed it – in positions of power, first in France’s imperial apparatus and then for a short time after independence.
If it doesn’t, think about international governing institutions (IGOs) like the United Nations or the World Bank for a moment. Why don’t these institutions recognize the likes of Kurdistan, Baluchistan, or South Ossetia? Is it because these IGOs are evil and oppressive, or simply because these bureaucracies cannot adapt quickly enough to a world where identity and the necessities of political economies are always in flux?
This phenomenon is not limited to post-colonial Africa, either. Think about African-Americans here in the United States and the stereotypes attributed to them. Those stereotypes – good and bad – are a direct result of bureaucracy.
Individualism, to me, is the best way to tackle the long-standing problem created by colonial logic abroad, and racism at home. Government programs that seek to help groups by taking from one and giving to another are just an extension of the bureaucratic logic revealed by Amselle’s work in French West Africa. But what is a good way to go about implementing a more individualized world? Open borders?Federation?
NEO’s response to my musings on decentralization in Africa is worth highlighting:
It strikes me , Brandon, that one of the impediments here, there may be others, I’m no expert, is that the nascent US was composed mostly of literate folks with a (at least somewhat) common outlook that specified above all honesty and a “government of laws, not men”. I would also state that this is a good bit of our problem now.
This is a great observation. An anthropologist by the name of Maya Mikdashi recently wrote an article on the effects of market-based reforms in the Middle East. She essentially argued that the market-based reforms assume that only a certain type of individual can successfully participate in the market economy (stay with me here): the rational, autonomous, freedom-seeking, and legally-protected-as-an-individual type. Over the past two decades, as more states have moved towards a market-based economy, we have seen the institutional and cultural rewards being reaped from this process. Instead of people who have known only poverty and want, the market-based economy has pushed individuals to seek to become more rational, autonomous, freedom-seeking, and legally protected as an individual.
Now, stay with me. The market-based economy, capitalism, has four broad institutional pillars that it needs to thrive: private property, individualism, the rule of law, and an internationalist spirit. From these pillars come the fountains of progress that the West has come to enjoy over the past 300 years. While I doubt she realizes it, Mikdashi is simply echoing the writings of the great classical liberal theorists of the past three centuries: institutions matter, and they matter a lot. A big point both Dr. Ayittey and myself have been trying to make is that the institutions necessary for progress and capitalism are already in place in the post-colonial world; when I was in Ghana doing research one of the things I always asked farmers is where they got their property titles and they answered “the chief.” I asked them why they didn’t go through more official routes to obtain their property titles (i.e. through the state), and I’m sure you can finish the Ghanaian farmer’s answer for him.
The fact that most, if not all, citizens of the new republic desired the rule of law is one that cannot be stressed enough, and it is definitely one of the reasons why we have grown so prosperous, and answers why we are in trouble today. However: Africans don’t desire the rule of law?
That is essentially what a political scientist is arguing in a short piece in the New York Times:
Yet because these countries were recognized by the international community before they even really existed, because the gift of sovereignty was granted from outside rather than earned from within, it came without the benefit of popular accountability, or even a social contract between rulers and citizens.
Imperialists like Dr Delacroix and Nancy Pelosi don’t seem to care about the legitimacy of post-colonial states (largely, I suspect, because they thought they did a great job of creating the borders that they did). You never hear them make arguments like this. Instead, the imperial line is all about helping all of those poor people suffering under despotic rule by bombing their countries, just as you would expect a condescending paternalist to do.
Since tactical strikes and peacekeeping missions have utterly failed since the end of WW2, why not try a new tactic? Our political scientist elaborates:
The first and most urgent task is that the donor countries that keep these nations afloat should cease sheltering African elites from accountability. To do so, the international community must move swiftly to derecognize the worst-performing African states, forcing their rulers — for the very first time in their checkered histories — to search for support and legitimacy at home […]
African states that begin to provide their citizens with basic rights and services, that curb violence and that once again commit resources to development projects, would be rewarded with re-recognition by the international community.
Englebert (the political scientist) goes on use examples of democratization in Taiwan as an example of how delegitimizing states can lead to democratization.
Another interesting angle that Englebert brings in is that of Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia that has not been recognized by the international community and, perhaps as result of this brittle reception by the international community, it is flourishing economically and politically. You won’t hear imperialists point to Somaliland either. Instead, you’ll get some predictable snark about ‘anarchism‘ or African savagery from these paternalists.
Yet, it is obvious that Somaliland is neither anarchist nor savage, as there is a government in place that is actively trying to work with both Mogadishu and international actors on the one hand, and rational calculations made by all sorts of actors on the other hand. What we have in the Horn of Africa, and – I would argue – by extension elsewhere in the post-colonial world, is a crisis of legitimacy wrought by the brutal, oppressive hand of government.